"We're Back" Even More Special Now

Thursday's NBA draft will feature lots of quality talent. A number of young players, including Florida's Marreese Speights, decided to leave early rather than wait to learn whether they have first round money in their future.

Two years after Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer turned down their chance at big NBA money to remain Gators, this year's draft will demonstrate how extraordinary that group was.

Florida's two time champions produced five draft picks in 2007, but only three really had a decision to make after the 2006 season. Joakim Noah was viewed by many analysts as the likely number one pick had he opted to depart. With Greg Oden eligible in 2007, there was little chance of anyone supplanting him at the top spot in that draft. Despite that, with nowhere to go but down, Noah opted to remain in school for another season and eventually went ninth. Al Horford would have been a high pick in 2006 and maintained that status. Corey Brewer was a mid-first rounder who used his extra year to become a lottery pick. All of them clearly sacrificed considerable income in pursuit of a second national title.

This year's national champion Kansas Jayhawks had the chance to emulate Florida's achievement of consecutive titles. Star players like Brandon Rush, Mario Chalmers and Darrell Arthur could have returned to chase another championship. All of them put their names in the draft instead and will likely be first rounders. Memphis could have positioned itself for a return to the national championship game, but without Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts that's not likely to happen. Other Tigers put their names in, worked out for NBA scouts and then returned to school after all. None of the Florida 2006 guys even did that.

There won't be any underclassmen from North Carolina in the draft, as the core of a Final Four team opted to come back and play another season under Roy Williams. Their decisions surprised some and could lead to a championship in Chapel Hill, but they don't compare to the choices made by Florida's players. Ty Lawson was considered a likely draftee by the Denver Nuggets at pick twenty, but after he was charged with driving a vehicle after drinking alcohol his stock took a major hit. Tyler Hansbrough is a college player of the year and might have been a first rounder, but scouts are far from sold on him as an NBA prospect. Neither Wayne Ellington or Danny Green were considered first round possibilities. None of these players sacrificed too much to return for another season.

The group known as the '04s would have always been special to Florida fans even if they had cashed in on their success immediately. As the years pass and it becomes clear how unique the 2006 Gators were, all basketball fans may come to appreciate their sacrifice more.

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